Published November 1, 2000
Science fiction is the parent genre of all post-modernism. If, as Hemingway said, all subsequent American fiction arises out of Huckleberry Finn, all post-modern movies arise out of Plan Nine from Outer Space and other B-grade schlock sci-fi movies of the 1950s — movies which have been enjoyed ever since by the cognoscenti more for their charming and ingenuous (though seldom ingenious) fakery than for any of the virtues of those dramatic arts which customarily require some suspension (as they used to say) of disbelief. Indeed, s-f almost by its very nature defies our most willing attempts to believe in it as, in some sense, real. Its unreality is precisely its charm — assuming you acknowledge that it has any charm.
With Red Planet, we see something new, however. Po mo treats every other genre as if it were science fiction, emphasizing the artificiality of the artifice in a knowing, ironic way designed to elicit our admiration for its sheer cleverness. In Red Planet, the s-f genre is itself submitted to the po mo treatment—as if the authors (director Antony Hoffman, writers Chuck Pfarrer, Jonathan Lemkin and Channing Gibson) first pretended that it was trying to look real and then pretended to expose their own pretense with a judiciously inserted cliché or cheesy bit of dialogue or plot — just to remind us (as if we were in any danger of forgetting!) that it is not real.
This, at any rate, is the charitable interpretation. When, in her voiceover introduction of her fellow martianauts, Commander Kate Bowman (Carrie Anne-Moss) said that one of them was “a hot-head but a fine co-pilot,” the audience of critics in whose company I saw the picture burst into laughter. We felt confirmed in our impression when another of the team, played by Terence Stamp, took up the Obi-wan Kenobe role to Val Kilmer’s Luke Skywalker, saying that “I realized that science couldn’t answer any of the really interesting questions, so I turned to philosophy. I’ve been searching for God ever since.” Cliché city, right? We settled down and prepared ourselves for a predictably bad movie.
Instead, it turned out to be (somewhat) unpredictably bad. The clichés were not infrequent, but they were rendered with a certain bravura self-consciousness of their being clichés which was obviously meant to disarm criticism. You see? Like the most advanced of postmodernists, we are doing this on purpose. Unfortunately, self-consciousness alone does not make a movie worth seeing, and this one has very little else going for it. It is a typical techno-romance whose real heroes are the machines — the operation of which we are meant to admire without in the least understanding how they work. Like so many other techno-romances, it is a black box movie whose own workings are as much taken for granted as those of the machines: as each new difficulty is encountered, the movie duly produces yet another machine to overcome it.
Thus, when the crew are stranded on Mars what do you think? The missing US Martian probe of 1997 furnishes them with a radio, an unspecified and abandoned dud Russian explorer provides the rocket for getting back into orbit while the feral robot AMEE, a triumph of the special effects team, provides the battery for launching the rocket when Val, still in the Luke role, outsmarts her. Meanwhile, back up in space, everything goes wrong that can go wrong for Commander Bowman on the orbiting mother ship (a term which takes on new meaning for this female commander of an otherwise all-male crew). Yet once the crisis is past, the infinite, omnicompetent bank of technologies on board is able to restore all systems to what for all practical purposes amounts to the status quo ante.
Oh dear. Have I just given away too much? I think not. As on other occasions in the past, I assume that if readers are intelligent enough to have read this far they are intelligent enough to not to want to see the movie, or, if they do, to have seen all this coming a mile off anyway. Indeed, the picture is arguably uninterested in suspense, so reliably does it provide the wherewithal for the survival of the two characters who are obviously meant to end up together, cradled in the bosom of the mother ship for the long ride home. Instead, what it is interested in is the usual Hollywood political message, a one-two punch of environmentalism and feminism.
So Cdr. Bowman’s introductory voiceover explains the reason for the voyage by taking us back from 2057, where events are supposed to be taking place, to the present day: “By the year 2000 we had begun to overpopulate, poison and pollute our planet faster than we could clean it up. . .” So scientists shipped some algae to Mars to create an atmosphere for future earthling colonists. You will not be surprised to learn that the experiment produced some unexpected results. Nor will you be surprised, I fancy, by Cdr Bowman’s knocking back the homemade vodka with her male subordinates ( “I learned to drink in the Navy, boys” ), her resentment at residual sexism or how fantastic she looks pottering about the spaceship in her little halter top. Some clichés we just never get tired of.